Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka's beautiful novel The Buddha in the Attic will break your heart. At the same time, it's an important book. It's the story of the Japanese brides who came to the United States as picture brides whose dreams of American life were destroyed over and over again. And, Otsuka tells us their stories in a short book with words so concise and perfect that they read as poetry.

The opening chapter tells of those young women who were sold to husbands in the United States. They were "picture brides" who had pictures of handsome young men who promised them houses and wealth, only to find men who were twenty years older than their pictures, men who were migrant workers in the fields. And, their lives were not what they had been led to expect, as they worked in the fields, had babies, raised children, were ignored by many whites. But, their children learned English in school, received awards. And, eventually over the years, the families built businesses, laundries and restaurants.And, then, in 1941, their names started to appear on lists, and rumors swept the Japanese communities.

Otsuka details the brutal lives of these women, from the boat journey to the moments when they packed up and disappeared from California communities.As I said, her words are concise, and poetic. Although no one woman's story is told, the format of the book still allows the reader to recognize them as individuals with different lives. Otsuka's rhythms and words are moving. Chapter one tells of their hopes and fears. Paragraph after paragraph begins, "On the boat..."  "On the boat we were mostly virgins." "On the boat we slept down below, in steerage, where it was filthy and dim." "On the boat we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were."

The Buddha in the Attic is a story of heartbreak. The chapter "Traitors" tells of the rumors that surfaced two days after war was declined that the Japanese were traitors, and stories of lists began to circulate. What did these families do their last days in their houses? Where did they disappear to? And, that's part of the tragedy and beauty of this book. The final chapter is the only one seen through someone else's eyes. Those are the rumors that circulate among the whites after the Japanese have disappeared, and no one knew where they went. And, after a while, it was if they were never there.

I can't do justice to The Buddha in the Attic, a moving novel of only 129 pages. However, I recommend it, and then I recommend Sandra Dallas' Tallgrass. I know there are probably so many other books out there that discuss the Japanese in the war years, but I'd move from Otsuka's book to Dallas'. Otsuka shows us the cruel reality of the lives of these women. Dallas reveals the lives of a small community near an internment camp. Once read, neither story will easily be forgotten.

Julie Otsuka's website is

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Alfred A. Knopf. 2011. 9780307700001 (hardcover), 129p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Nancy said...

I certainly would like to read this book. Lesa, there's a YA book I loved: The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito. If you haven't read it, I think you would love it.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Nancy. I'll have to try that.

Jody said...

Sounds interesting.

Lesa said...

I hope you get a chance to pick it up, Jody.